April 7, 2010
Have we hit Holocaust fatigue?
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I released a documentary film, “Swimming in Auschwitz,” in 2007. In my experience, very few people want to hear about the camps anymore. I can’t begin to tell you how many film festivals did not show my film, for the sole reason that “the audience doesn’t want to see those images anymore,” according to the programming director of a recent film festival. And many of these were Jewish film festivals. Just so you know that this is not sour grapes, “Swimming in Auschwitz” has been aired more than 1,400 times on PBS stations throughout the United States; it has played at more than a dozen film festivals worldwide and has been showered with glowing press. While it does not reinvent the wheel, it is a good film about six women who survived Auschwitz with a focus on spiritual resistance and maintaining humanity. It is a film with Auschwitz as its main location that uplifts the viewer by the end.
Even so, it is exceedingly hard to get people to stop what they are doing and watch something they think they have already witnessed. They insist that “they have seen enough” and want us to “move on.” As if one could watch “Schindler’s List” or read Elie Wiesel’s “Night” and feel that he had experienced the Holocaust. The topic is beyond our grasp. No matter how much we read or see, we can never fully understand what it meant to be in Auschwitz or Stutthof or Buchenwald. Only the survivors understand that reality. We who live in the post-Holocaust world can only try to learn more, which cannot be done if we refuse to face the very camps and factories that killed and imprisoned millions.
That is not to imply that the numerous films and television programs being made every year are a bad thing. Far from it. The individual stories that came from the absolute evil of the Holocaust are more compelling than anything a writer could fabricate. They are full of resiliency and pathos, strength and suffering. They show the best of mankind while giving glimpses into the evil that lurks in societies. The Oscars and Emmys that follow some of these works are vital in encouraging others to undertake similar projects, as every survivor or righteous person has a story that is worthy of a book or film. But how can we talk about the Bielski brothers or Hannah Senesh if we don’t know about the Polish ghettos, Chelmno, Treblinka or the plight of the Hungarian Jews? It would be like composing music without ever learning of Beethoven, Bach or Mozart.
But just seeing pictures of mass graves and regurgitating numbers of victims does not an education make. The Holocaust didn’t start on Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Or in the summer of 1942, when Birkenau became the largest killing factory this world has ever known. Or even in the spring of 1944, when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were deported and murdered after Germany had, for all intents and purposes, already lost the war. Why then do we teach the Holocaust within these dates? It isn’t as if Hitler suddenly came to power one day and, the next day, Jews found themselves in ghettos and camps. But with a finite number of teaching hours available, it often comes down to what is most important to cover. As the head of a prestigious L.A. Hebrew school told me, she only has 20 hours to cover Jewish history in some of her classes; it is getting harder to teach the Holocaust at all.
To compound the issue, the Holocaust we are teaching has not changed and grown as we have moved further away from the crimes of the Third Reich and as we head toward the ever-approaching post-survivor world. How will the memories of the Holocaust survive when there are no firsthand witnesses to give testimony? When will we talk about the losses of culture and intellectual property that were present prior to the war? In Poland, a culture a thousand years in the making has never recovered from the devastation of the camps. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in many European countries, and Israel is as precarious as it has ever been. Maybe we have more-pressing issues to deal with on a daily basis than the Holocaust. With major genocides happening in the past few decades in Africa, Asia and Europe, perhaps our teaching hours are best spent elsewhere.
This would be a tragic mistake. The Holocaust, in addition to being studied and analyzed at numerous levels, gives us the advantage of historical distance. We have had six decades in which to garner, process and publish information in many thoughtful ways. A great example of this is the change in the types and tones of films made in different eras: “Night and Fog” versus “Shoah” versus “The Last Days.” All are documentaries, yet each has a specific tone and visual quality. Each taught us and showed us something about the Holocaust and the camps that was appropriate to what society was ready and willing to confront at the time. Looking at the films of the last decade, one is hard pressed to find a documentary that has received the accolades of the earlier works. Instead, the Holocaust fable (“Life Is Beautiful,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”), the individual stories of survivors and resisters (“Defiance,” “Valkyrie”) and outright fiction (“The Reader,” “Inglourious Basterds”) have filled the niche for Holocaust works. While these works shed light on narrow elements of the Holocaust and its environs, they do not replace the realistic works of fact.